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‘Teacher Li’: Why China is enraged over a dissident in Italy

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NEW DELHI: From a quiet artist’s corner in Italy to the heart of China’s censorship struggle, Li Ying, known online as “Teacher Li,” has inadvertently become a beacon for freedom of speech. With over a million followers, his online actions challenge Beijing’s strict control, shaking the very foundation of the Great Firewall.
But recent events indicate that China’s reach extends far beyond its borders, impacting even those who thought they had found a safe haven on foreign platforms like X, formerly Twitter.
‘Teacher Li’
Li’s journey into dissidence began inadvertently when he moved to Italy in 2015 to study contemporary art. Stranded due to the pandemic, he began retweeting content related to protests against Covid restrictions in China, content that quickly resonated with a broad audience. His platform became a crucial source of information, offering a window into the realities of life in China that starkly contrasted with the sanitized narratives pushed by the state.
Driving the news: A sudden shift in support
On February 25, Li alerted his audience in China that the Ministry of Public Security was inspecting his 1.6 million followers “one by one,” and local authorities were calling individuals to “have tea” as they were recognized, a CNN report said.
“I recommend anyone who feels intimidated to simply stop following me; you can save one of my tweets or look up my account name to stay updated with the latest news,” Li said in an “urgent notice” on X, the CNN report said.
Furthermore, he encouraged followers to enhance their account security to avoid revealing their identities. Beneath the announcement, Li posted images of direct messages from followers who claimed they were questioned by the police.
After revealing that Chinese authorities were targeting his followers, Li witnessed a sharp drop in his support base, losing 200,000 followers almost overnight. This mass departure underscores the fear that pervades among Chinese netizens, even those residing outside the country’s borders. The situation illuminates the complex web of control and influence that Beijing extends over its citizens, regardless of their geographical location.
Why it matters: Silencing voices globally
Yaqiu Wang, the research director for China at the advocacy group Freedom House, told CNN that police questioning individuals simply for following an X account marks a significant intensification from previous instances, which typically involved X users being targeted for voicing their opinions.
“To the authorities, subscribing to a particular account signifies that you are entertaining inappropriate thoughts and ought to be penalized, essentially committing ‘thought crimes,'” she mentioned. “This distinctly indicates the Chinese government’s ongoing clampdown on free speech within the nation.”
Li’s story is not just about one man’s fight against censorship; it’s a testament to the lengths to which authoritarian regimes will go to suppress dissent. His followers, subjected to police questioning for merely engaging with his content, exemplify the global implications of China’s domestic policies.
Sophie Richardson, a longtime China observer and former China director at Human Rights Watch, told AP: “If you look at independent activism around the time that Xi came to power, relative to what you can see now, what’s disturbingly clear is that Xi’s leadership sought to obliterate civil society and to silence dissent, not just inside the country but globally, to ensure that anybody who criticizes him and the regime has to think twice.”
What next: A climate of fear and resistance
Li continues to navigate a precarious existence, moving frequently and living in isolation to protect himself and his loved ones from reprisals. Meanwhile, the diaspora and global observers watch closely as this drama unfolds, questioning the reach of their own freedoms. Will Li’s stand inspire greater resistance, or will the chill of censorship spread unchecked?
Between the lines: The global response
The international community’s reaction to Li’s plight and the broader implications of China’s extraterritorial censorship efforts will be telling. As digital platforms become battlegrounds, the global struggle for freedom of speech and privacy is increasingly under the spotlight. How the world responds to Li’s story may set important precedents for international norms and the future of digital rights.
(With inputs from agencies)

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